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It’s a Friday morning in Austin, Texas, and South By Southwest is racing along like a runaway Prius. Lines have gathered outside the bars, restaurants and clubs clustered downtown, and zombie-like queues of bleary-eyed masses wait for another day of music. Outside the legendary venue Emo’s, a woman pushes her way to the front of the line, waving a laminated pass. “Excuse me, I need to get in there,” she says to the doorman, who looks irritated. “I’m here with,” she pauses and leans in close to slowly, deliberately whisper, “Roll-ing Stone.”
Pulling rank works; the agitated presswoman walks right in. Clearly, Emo’s is the place to be.
It’s a little past noon—still morning by musicians’ standards—and the Pitchfork/Windish Agency showcase is under way. Inside Emo’s, LA’s great female-fronted psych outfit Warpaint unleash their careful cacophony onstage, wielding a precise balance between quiet and noise.
But during one of Warpaint’s quieter moments, the cheers of another crowd in Emo’s outdoor venue creep inside, followed by thumping drums and bouncing guitar lines that float into the knot of people. Some audience members catch wind of the surging percussion, faintly recognizing the sound. Then with a powerful blast of a four-part harmony, the band reveal themselves.
Outside, the band are already in full force, stoking the crowd with their energetic rhythms. Kelcey Ayer stands center-stage, playing keys and belting out the soaring chorus to “Airplanes,” while bassist Andy Hamm and drummer Matt Frazier drive the beat to a steady, pulsing kick drum.
Sporting ratty T-shirts, nice guitars, mustaches, beards and everything in between, Local Natives could go missing in a gaggle of Brooklynites. Their sound has been lumped in with Vampire Weekend, Grizzly Bear, Yeasayer and other Manhattan-adjacent bands who bite off from the Talking Heads (from whom, by the way, Local Natives gleaned “Warning Sign” for this SXSW performance).
But something about Local Natives rings truer. Unlike many of the skronking mope-rockers who populate the early-’80s wannabes of the current “it” list, Local Natives are different, distinct. The packed crowd outside at Emo’s feels it during the breakdown of “Wide Eyes,” as the rolling drums meet up with Ayer’s percussion kit and guitarist Taylor Rice shakes a tambourine.
Those who once nursed hangovers with breakfast hot dogs and Heinekens were now enthralled and dancing at the break of noon, all eyes fixed on the stage. There seems to be 10 of them, as Local Natives switch instruments, trade off on vocals—but there’s just one sound. For Local Natives, there are no parts, only the sum, a single-minded entity comprising old friends and new compatriots who once joined together in a house in Orange County with a plan: release a monster.
* * *
A week after SXSW, Local Natives have returned home. Their empty tour van waits in front of their house in Silver Lake, the hilly Los Angeles enclave with a dense population of both established and aspiring musicians. Inside, the house has that anonymous mid-’70s vibe that so many Southern California houses exude: the dark-wood cabinets, popcorn ceiling, frosted lights. A piano, obscured by amplifiers, looks like it has seen its fair share of abuse. Guitar cases, drum boxes and cables litter the living room.
“Sorry for the mess,” Frazier says. “There’s been a bunch of car break-ins lately, so we didn’t want to leave anything in there.”
For Local Natives, the van is often their home, so during the two weeks before their Coachella debut, they are taking the time to enjoy the comforts of the great indoors. Frazier is eating yogurt and granola for his breakfast—a far cry from SXSW’s cavalcade of junk food—Hamm sits on his half of a bass cabinet, and the rest of the guys squeeze together on a thrift-store couch.
“We’re used to close proximity,” jokes guitarist/vocalist Ryan Hahn, before he and Rice squeeze together to muss Ayer’s hair. Now in their early 20s, the three couch-sitters have known each other for years, and it shows. They pick on one another, playfully making jabs at any faults that come up. Rice misspeaks and says “slong,” which is way too close to “schlong” for Hahn and the guys to let it slide. They laugh and riff on schlongs in the way only close friends can.
After all, Local Natives weren’t just a band; they were a tight-knit family living under one roof in Orange. Between their van and that raucous house they lovingly dubbed Gorilla Manor (from which their debut album got its name), the guys have shared space for years. Rice, Ayer and Hahn grew up together in OC and played in bands throughout high school.
In the following years, Hamm and Frazier joined up with the guys to form Cavil At Rest, a jangle-pop band that earned a measure of notice on cable-music channels. But the timing wasn’t exactly right for that band. Rice runs down their former extracurricular activities: “At the time, I was in school at UCLA, [Hahn] was at Pepperdine, Kels was in school, Andy was working in the fashion industry in LA, and Matt was doing full-time graphic design at OC Weekly.”
“Everybody in the band was like, ‘Should I do the band or not?’” Hamm interjects. “We were one foot in, one foot out, and that came across in our music. We were only giving 50 percent.”
“Nothing really jelled until we moved into that house,” Rice continues. “We hunkered down and literally wrote 12 hours a day, five days a week.”
In that house, they began to redefine their sound and vision, closing the door on the Cavil At Rest moniker and beginning the Local Natives era. Frazier and Rice shared the master bedroom, Ayers lived in an added-on room with no outlets or heat that was separated from Hahn’s room only by a sliding glass door and a sheet.
“It was so cold in there,” Ayers says and laughs.
The close quarters gave them little space, but the distance from LA’s bustling music scene did them well.
“We secluded ourselves [in Orange County],” Rice says. “It wasn’t like we were feeding off of some scene, so I think it was good that we weren’t in LA yet because we needed that incubation period.”
They recorded the album in West LA and began booking gigs in Echo Park and Silver Lake. In 2008, the frequent commute began to wear on them, and they decided to leave their simian lair—and OC—behind.
“OC only really has Detroit Bar, and we weren’t playing Chain Reaction anymore,” Hahn says. “It was hard to have to drive up from Orange to play the Silverlake Lounge or Spaceland. We were like, ‘This is where it’s at; this is where we should be for these opportunities.’ It just made sense.”
Local Natives landed a Silverlake Lounge residency in their first week in LA and followed up with a Spaceland residency. At SXSW in 2009, they played nine shows in four days and debuted their new name and sound to the global audience gathered in Austin. The international exposure helped them land a U.K. tour, which helped them find a home for the self-financed Gorilla Manor. In December, the album come out in the U.K. on Infectious Records; it debuted in the States in February with the help of Frenchkiss Records.
“We started doing stuff in the U.K. and overseas, and we’ve had a lot of opportunities,” Ayer says. “As far as band milestones, this [upcoming] Coachella performance will be where it really hits us.”
“When I moved to California from Colorado, Coachella was the first thing you heard of—it’s huge,” Hamm continues. “I didn’t think we would ever play it, but when they asked us, I was like, ‘What the hell is going on here?’”
From the outside, this rise seems nothing less than meteoric. But for these longtime friends, the sacrifice and rebirth, the close quarters and endless touring, this monster has been a long time in the making.
This article appeared in print as "Going Natives: Hot and getting hotter, Orange County expats Local Natives chill out before their day in the blazing Indio sun."